The fight for freedom from where freedom had once been curtailed

20 02 2016

I miss the Bras Basah Road of my schooldays. Wet rice road as “bras (or beras) basah” translates into, and the area around it, had a life about it and a charm that now seems lost.

A Bras Basah still with its many reminders of the past. The Cox Club at Waterloo Street can be seen on the left behind the bus (F W York Collection, National Archives of Singapore).

A Bras Basah still with its many reminders of the past. The Cox Club at Waterloo Street can be seen on the left behind the bus (F W York Collection, National Archives of Singapore).

Sarabat Stalls along Waterloo Street

The row of Indian Rojak stalls at Waterloo Street – a favourite makan destination during my days in school (posted on AsiaOne).

The street, a destination for those in search of sporting goods, books and good affordable food, was also where school was for some. Several of Singapore’s pioneering schools, including our very first, Raffles Institution, have their roots in the area.

Bras Basah Road as seen from the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in 1968. The row of shophouses where bookshops and sporting goods shops were concentrated can be seen just beyond Saint Joseph’s Institution (now the Singapore Art Museum). The Cathay building, ‘Singapore’s first skyscraper’, can be seen at the end of Bras Basah at Dhoby Ghaut (http://www.goingplacessingapore.sg).

The row of book and sporting goods shops opposite the remnants of a 18th century gaol along Bras Basah Road (National Archives photograph).

Without the shops, the makan places and children hurrying to school, an air of emptiness now surrounds the place; an emptiness that also extends to a built environment that now lacks several markers of the area’s eventful past.

The former Raffles Institution as seen from Beach Road, 1975.

The former Raffles Institution as seen from Beach Road – where Raffles City now stands.

The streets around the Singapore Art Museum are ones that were familiar to me from my school days at the end of the 1970s. Then it wasn't just traffic that brought movement at 7.20 in the morning, but the comings and goings of school children, workers and residents of the area.

The emptiness that is today Bras Basah Road.

One missing piece of this past would have taken us back to forgotten days when Singapore served British India as a penal colony. This piece, a cluster of structures belonging to a nineteenth century convict gaol, had long been a prominent feature on the Bras Basah Road until it was demolished in the late 1980s.

A view of Bras Basah Road from Mount Sophia on a 19th century postcard The gaol is seen just beyond the drying laundry at Bras Basah Green - what gave Dhoby Ghaut its name.

A view of Bras Basah Road from Mount Sophia on a 19th century postcard The gaol complex is seen just beyond the drying laundry at Bras Basah Green – what gave Dhoby Ghaut its name.

The cluster stood close to where Bencoolen Street crossed Bras Basah Road, its most noticeable structure being one I initially suspected was the gaol’s gate-house. Built flush with what would have been the outer walls of the gaol, an arched passageway wide enough for a carriage to pass suggested it might have been one.

The inside of the gaol, photographed by G H Lambert, looking towards what appears to be the former apothecary’s quarters (National Archives photograph).

The cluster was all that remained of a prison complex that old maps show to stretch southwards to the Stamford Canal, originally the Freshwater Rivulet, and eastwards to Victoria Street over the plot on which Raffles Girls School at Queen Street would be built.

The Layout of the Bras Basah Gaol.

The Layout of the Bras Basah Gaol.

The gaol gates - where the southward extension of Waterloo Street was to be constructed..

The gaol gates – where the southward extension of Waterloo Street was to be constructed..

Where the gates would have been across Bras Basah Road.

Where the gates would have been across Bras Basah Road.

The gaol, built by the convicts themselves, was completed in 1860. It last saw use as a prison in 1882, some years after the last of the convicts brought from India had been released in 1873. The convicts were put to work, clearing forests, hunting tigers and building Singapore – many of Singapore’s first paved roads including Bras Basah, structures such as the bund at Collyer Quay, St. Andrew’s Cathedral and the Raffles and Horsburgh lighthouses were built by these convicts. What remained of the gaol was also perhaps a reminder not just of the penal colony but also of the contribution made by the convicts in the building up of early British Singapore.

Pulau Satumu or "One Tree Island", the southernmost island of Singapore, is home to Raffles Lighthouse.

Raffles Lighthouse, among the structures built by convict labour.

A map of the Bras Basah area in the mid 1800s well before the Maghain Aboth was built. Waterloo Street had then been named Church Street.

A map of the Bras Basah area in the mid 1800s showing the location of the gaol.

The gaol proper was laid out across an area that included what became the sports field of the school I attended, Saint Joseph’s Institution (SJI) and the now paved over southward extension of Waterloo Street that was known in more recent times for the famous row of Indian Rojak stalls.  The area had apparently already been cleared and was in use as a playing field, referred to as the “Children’s Corner”, in the early twentieth century.

Saint Joseph's Institution on Bras Basah Road in the 1970s

The Saint Joseph’s Institution field in the 1970s.

The “gate-house”, it turns out, had not been the gaol’s gates, but the apothecary’s quarters – part of the set of buildings laid out along the western boundary to house the gaol’s hospital and lunatic asylum.

The former apothecary used by the CYMA as seen in the 1970s.

The former apothecary’s quarters used by the CYMA along Bras Basah Road (c. 1970s).

If not for the fact that the lunatic asylum and the gaol had long moved out, one might have suspected that it might have been one of its inmates who sent part of the former gaol’s perimeter wall tumbling down in October 1978. This bizarre incident involved a Singapore Bus Service bus that had been stolen from the Toa Payoh bus depot by a 15-year old boy. The portion of the wall that it crashed into was one that was shared with the bedroom of a house used by the caretaker of what had then been the Catholic Young Men’s Association (CYMA) and it was fortunate that no one was hurt.

The 1978 incident involving a stolen SBS bus (National Archives photograph).

Besides becoming the home of the CYMA, the hospital section of the former gaol also saw use by the Malay Company of the Singapore Volunteer Corps up to the late 1930s. Part of the grounds also found use after the war as the Cox Club for Indian troops, which was later to house the Malayan Air Training Command (MATC). It was during its time as the MATC HQ that a Spitfire Mk 24 that some in the “pioneer generation” may remember seeing, found its way to the grounds.

A photograph taken in 1970 from the National Museum showing the section of the former gaol's grounds west of Waterloo Street, when it was used by the CYMA. The former apothecary can quite clearly be seen. Scouts can also be seen in the foreground - the troop from Catholic High School had their den on the grounds.

A photograph taken by Randal McDowell in 1970 from the National Museum showing the section of the former gaol’s grounds west of Waterloo Street, when it was used by the CYMA. The former apothecary’s quarters can quite clearly be seen. Scouts can also be seen in the foreground – the troop from Catholic High School had their den on the grounds.

The former apothecary in the days when the grounds were used by the Malay Company of the Singapore Volunteer Corps.

The former apothecary’s quarters in the days when the grounds were used by the Malay Company of the Singapore Volunteer Corps.

Interestingly, and ironically perhaps, the same grounds, used in its early days to curtail freedom of people shipped from the British India, was to find use in the fight to free India from British rule. It was there that the Indian National Army’s all women Rani of Jhansi regiment found their first training camp, which opened on 22 October 1943.

Capt. Lakshmi and Subhas Chandra Bose inspecting the members of the INA Rani of Jhansi regiment at the camp in Bras Basah Road. The former apothecary building and the arched verandahs of what became the Soon Choon Leong building at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Bencoolen Street can quite clearly be seen.

Capt. Lakshmi and Subhas Chandra Bose inspecting a guard of honour presented by members of the Rani of Jhansi regiment at the camp in Bras Basah Road. The former apothecary’s quarters and the arched verandahs of what became the Soon Chong Leong building at the corner of Bras Basah Road and Bencoolen Street can quite clearly be seen.

The area of the former Rani of Jhansi camp today.

The area of the former Rani of Jhansi camp today – where the Singapore Management University’s School of Information Systems is located.

The Japanese Imperial Army supported INA found its second wind under the newly appointed Subhas Chandra Bose, seeking recruits among captured troops from the British Indian army units and the civilian population with the aim of freeing India from British rule. The events in Singapore of October 1943 represented a significant milestone for the INA. Not only was the women’s unit training camp established, a Provisional Government of Free India had, only a day before on 21 October 1943, been proclaimed by Subhas Chandra Bose at Cathay building.

Members of the Azad Hind posing for a photograph in Singapore on 21 October 1943.

Members of the Azad Hind posing for a photograph in Singapore on 21 October 1943.

The women’s regiment was formed in July 1943 through the efforts of the very young Captain (Dr.) Lakshmi Swaminathan (later Sahgal), who had come to Singapore only three years before to practice medicine. It drew its members mainly from the working classes in the Indian community of Singapore and Malaya  and counted some 1500 women in its ranks. Capt. Lakshmi besides being the leader of the regiment, was also appointed as the Minister in Charge of Women’s Organisation in the Azad Hind.

The women's regiment drew many recruits from the working class in Singapore and Malaya.

The women’s regiment drew many recruits from the working class in Singapore and Malaya.

An article, apparently written by Dr. Lakshmi, “My days in the Indian National Army”, offers some insights into the regiment and its training, which was to commence on 23 October 1943. In it she reveals:

“Our training lasted three months. It was very rigorous. We all had to wear a khaki uniform of pants and bush shirt, and cut our hair short. I had hair below my knees which my mother had never allowed me to cut. So I was really glad to have it cut and never grew it back since”.

Dr. Lakshmi’s account also tells of the women’s regiment’s participation in guerrilla attacks in Burma, to which the unit had been deployed in 1944 and 1945. The unit disbanded in 1945, at a time when the turning tide of the war in Burma had the Japanese Imperial Army and the INA in retreat.

The area where the apothecary building was.

The area where the apothecary’s quarters was.

As controversial as Subhas Chandra Bose and the INA, due to their collaboration with the occupying Japanese army, may be, the memory of the Bose and INA is one that has been kept alive here in Singapore. A marker at the Esplanade stands at the site of a memorial of the INA, now a historical site.

The INA memorial at Esplanade, marked with the words Ittehad, Itmad aur Qurbani, which in Urdu means Unity, Faith and Sacrifice  (National Archives photograph).

While the INA and Bose have not been forgotten, little however is now said of the Rani of Jhansi regiment and of Dr. Lakshmi, who passed away at the age of 97 in India in 2012. Like the gaol, the grounds of which the regiment also had its roots sunk into, the few physical reminders left have now been swept away by faceless buildings the man on the street struggles to find a connection to. That connection, brought about by the everyday things that drew us to the area and the many stories its buildings told of the history not just of one of Singapore’s oldest roads, but also of Singapore itself, is one that now seems to forever be broken.

BRITISH REOCCUPATION OF SINGAPORE, 1945

A view down Bras Basah Road following the surrender in 1945, © IWM (IND 4817). The structures of the former goal – used by the Rani of Jhansi regiment as a training camp, can be seen at what would have been the gaol’s northwest corner.

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Open up a box full of memories at the library

14 04 2013

As part of the Singapore Memory Project (SMP), an exhibition, “My Home, My Library” is being held at the Public Libraries. The exhibition which runs from 25 March to 29 April showcases many precious memories which have contributed by residents of each of the neighbourhoods the libraries are in, with the aim of serving as memory triggers to help more Singaporeans to add to the 830,000 pledges and contributions made thus far to the SMP.

Visitors can take a photo at the exhibition or of themselves at a photo wall, share it on Twitter or Instagram with a #sgmemory hashtag, in order to stand a chance to win up to $200 weekly.

The My Home, My Library exhibition offers visitors a chance to take a photo at the exhibition or of themselves at a photo wall and to share it on Twitter or Instagram to stand a chance of winning up to $200 weekly.

The biscuit tin of keepsakes and memories at the Library @ Esplanade.

The biscuit tin of keepsakes and memories at the library@esplanade.

At the exhibition, visitors will open a biscuit tin of memories, in the way that their parents or grandparents might have opened their tins and boxes with their mementos and keepsakes stashed in them, through a huge human height biscuit tin (which resembles a popular brand of biscuits many would have been familiar with). There are some 500 memories in the tinboxes found across all the libraries and in them, there may perhaps be some which could evoke a memory stashed away somewhere.

Front and Back Covers of the "Log Book" that I used.

My own tinbox of keepsakes includes a book bought from the bookshops along Bras Basah Road.

The exhibition offers visitors a chance not just to relive precious moments but also to win attractive prizes every week in the Snap & Share social media contest. All that is needed is for visitors to take a photograph of an interesting exhibit or of themselves at the photo wall (which has on its backdrop an image of the respective neighbourhood in days past), and share it via Twitter or Instagram hash-tagged with #sgmemory to stand a chance to win up to $200 in shopping vouchers on a weekly basis. What’s more, the most retweeted tweet will win a prize of $50 in shopping vouchers!

The memory submission stand.

The Memory Submission Stand.

Visitors will also have a chance to submit their memories at the Memory Submission Stand – fashioned from a large scale version of the all familiar Carnation Milk tin. Kids will also have a chance to stamp their mark at the at the Kids’ Stamping Station – I know stamping was one of my favourite activities as a child. There are 6 different locally inspired rubber stamp designs and kids can either bring that stamping work home or contribute their work towards the SMP.

The Kids' Stamping Station - surely a hit with kids.

The Kids’ Stamping Station – surely a hit with kids.

In conjunction with My Home, My Library the libraries also organised a couple of tours involving small groups of bloggers. I got a chance to bore a few bloggers all of whom were a lot younger than me, taking them to places in and around the library@esplanade in a nostalgia tour last Saturday. The places involved some which were close to  my heart and some in which I am still able to find memories of times which would otherwise have been forgotten. The places were ones which I hoped could also trigger the memories of the four bloggers who came along.

A stop on the nostalgia tour - the Children Little Museum.

A stop on the nostalgia tour – the Children Little Museum.

The first stop on the tour was at the NParks roving exhibition “Playsets of Yesteryears” currently at Raffles Place. In spite of the rain, we spotted a little girl in a raincoat determined to have a go at one of the swing sets. That brought back not just memories of playing in many similar playgrounds in my swinging sixties (and seventies), but also of times looking forward to the rain so as to play in the falling rain, splashing in the puddles and wading in the flood waters (I still sometimes look forward to doing some of that!). The installation has been organised by the National Parks Board (NParks) for the commemoration of 50 years of Greening Singapore and is in collaboration with the SMP. More on the installation and where it can be seen at can be found in a previous post The 1970s playground reinterpreted.

The temporary Playsets of Yesteryears at Raffles Place.

The temporary Playsets of Yesteryears installation at Raffles Place.

From Raffles Place, a place which holds a lot more memories of days shopping at Robinson’s and John Little’s and having chicken pies around the corner, we boarded a bus which took us to the next stop, Albert Centre. There we had a look at a wet market and at some street traders along the pedestrian mall at Waterloo Street. The market isn’t one that I had my main wet market experiences at, but as all wet markets are, they are (or at least the used to be) where life revolves around, as well as providing a multi-sensory experience with their sights, colours, sounds and even smells. The market at Albert Centre is one which probably carries with it the memories of what the streets around used to hold, the original vendors having moved into the residential cum commercial Housing and Development Board (HDB) complex when it was completed in 1980, having been displaced from the street markets at Queen Street  and Albert Street by urban redevelopment efforts which swept across the area at the end of the 1970s.

A vegetable vendor at the wet market.

A vegetable vendor at the wet market.

Markets were always fascinating places for me, until that is, when a vendor’s daughter pushed me into a basin of salted vegetables. It is in the markets that I find many of the memories I have of my childhood, although the sights, sounds (one particular sound was that of the cha-kiak – wooden clogs on the wet floor) and smells may now be a little different. Many revolved around live chickens, seeing them in cages, being chosen, weighed, slaughtered and de-feathered and occasionally being carried home alive, struggling in brown paper bags with red and white strings. There are many more memories I have which I do have some posts previously written on.

One particular memory I have of is mutton butchers towering over their huge log chopping blocks at Tekka Market (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

One particular memory I have of is mutton butchers towering over their huge log chopping blocks at Tekka Market (photograph taken with LG Optimus G).

Just next to Albert Centre is a concentration of street traders at the end of  Waterloo Street and Albert Mall. The area sees high pedestrian traffic because of the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho and the Sri Krishnan Temples in the area which attracts a lot of devotees. Their presence there harks back to days when similar traders were commonly found on many other streets and one can find Chinese medicine men (that were especially common at pasar malams), fortune tellers, cobblers, as well as what one might expect, food, devotional objects and flower vendors.

A fortune teller's stand along Waterloo Street.

A fortune teller’s stand along Waterloo Street.

From Albert Centre, we headed to Bras Basah Complex, another HDB residential cum commercial that came up in 1980 – this without a wet market. The complex was also one which took in many traders from the area it is in. This included the many watch dealers, book, optician and stationery shops that occupied the shophouses that were cleared on North Bridge Road and the bookshops that the shophouses at Bras Basah Road between Waterloo and Bencoolen Streets were well visited for. Those bookshops were where I got my textbooks and revision books such as the ever so popular “ten-year-series” from and their move in 1980s drew many of us who went to school in the area to Bras Basah Complex. While many of the original bookshops have moved out, there are some of the other original stores that remain including some old school stationery shops (where we could get not just stationery but calculators, sports goods and harmonicas) and watch shops which take us back to its early days. Of the watch shops – it was from a similar one in Katong Shopping Centre where I obtained my very first wrist watch, an Otis for $70 back in 1976.

An old school watch dealer at Bras Basah Complex.

An old school watch dealer at Bras Basah Complex.

The next stop we had was Esplanade Park, better known as Esplanade or Queen Elizabeth Walk in the days when it was a popular outing spot to catch the sea breeze and indulge after in some satay and chendol. Back then walks in the evening were always interesting, not just for the sea breeze, the flicker of lights of the ships in the distance, or the beam of light from Fullerton Light that swept across the harbour, but also for the many traders scattered around the promenade. There were the usual kacang putih man, the balloon vendor who supported his colourful air-filled balloons with long tubular ones, and the snake charmer.

In search of the satay club at the Esplanade.

Bloggers +1 in search of the satay club at the Esplanade.

No longer there are the satay club which was at the location from 1971 to 1995, having moved from its original spot at Hoi How Road where we would sit at low tables on low stools and where satay would be piled up on a plate and charging was by the number of sticks consumed, as well as the semi-circular laid out Esplanade Food Centre which went in 1980 and which was possibly Singapore’s first built hawker centre coming up in the 1950s, which had been well known for its chendol. However, there are several memories including the Tan Kim Seng Fountain which used to serve as a marker of the former Satay Club, as well as another first – Singapore’s very first pedestrian underpass (as well as non surface pedestrian crossing) built in 1964 which connects Empress Place with the Esplanade.

Composite photograph of the Satay Club (and Esplanade Food Centre) and Esplanade Park today.

Composite photograph of the Satay Club (and Esplanade Food Centre) and Esplanade Park today.

From Esplanade Park, we moved next to the library@esplanade for the My Home, My Library exhibition there – that provided not just a look at the tinbox of memories but also provided some welcome relief for what was an extremely hot and sweaty morning. From that it was a drive by of the former site of the New Seventh Storey Hotel, and the DHL Balloon, which some may remember as landmarks (the DHL Balloon for a short while) in the Bugis/Rochor area, enroute to the Children Little Museum on Bussorah Street which holds in its toy shop full of old school toys and its museum of many full memories, many reminders of my (if not the other bloggers’) childhood. The toy shop and museum does also provide an appreciation perhaps of childhood toys and games over the generations – from simple cheap to make toys and low cost games, many a result of invention and improvisation, to more expensive and sophisticated ones, to the handheld electronic games which made an appearance in the late 1970s – the predecessors of the handheld video game consoles of today.

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There was time at the end of the tour and before the heavy downpour that was to come, to have lunch nearby. That was at the Seow Choon Hua Restaurant at Sultan Gate, popular for its Fuzhou (Foochow) dishes including Foochow fish ball noodles – which I had. There was also some time for me to share my experiences accompanying my maternal grandmother on a trishaw to the area nearby – Arab Street to be precise, an area she referred to a “Kampong Jawa” (as the area hosted a Javanese community), to do her shopping for items such as batik sarongs and bedak sejuk (powder sold in tablet  form). The street then as it is now, plays hosts to many textile shops – a reminder of a time it was common to have clothes made-to-measure. While such shops in other areas have gone – the popularity of ready-to-wear clothes from the late 1970s onwards meant that demand for textiles fell. Many such shops, especially those found in Toa Payoh Central, turned to selling ready-to-wear clothes and a large concentrations of them are now found only on Arab Street.

Foochow Fishball Noodles at Seow Choon Hua.

Foochow Fishball Noodles at Seow Choon Hua.


About My Home, My Library:

The Singapore Memory Project presents “My Home, My Library” – a nationwide exhibition showcasing personal memories contributed by residents of each neighbourhood. From library romances to tok-tok noodle carts and kampong life, each memory tells a unique story that forms a portrait of our home and our libraries. Take a peek into our treasure trove of stories and share some of your own precious memories with your fellow residents. For more information, please click here. My Home, My Library runs at all public libraries (except for Geylang East which is under renovation) until 29 April 2013.


About the Singapore Memory Project (SMP):

The SMP is a national initiative started in 2011 to collect, preserve and provide access to Singapore’s knowledge materials, so as to tell the Singapore Story. It aims to build a national collection of content in diverse formats (including print, audio and video), to preserve them in digital form, and make them available for discovery and research.

Currently, members of the public can submit their memories for the project by”


Do also read about the impressions My Home, My Library left on some of the other bloggers: